Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Shining Stars of Davida: Geraldine Ferraro

As most of you probably know, Geraldine Ferraro recently died on March 26, 2011. I was listening to my iPod and doing homework, not actually paying attention to the news, when I heard Ms. Ferraro’s name mentioned. While it is unfortunate that she passed on and truly a blow to the feminist movement, it’s imperative that we celebrate her life and accomplishments.

Geraldine Ferraro was born on August 26, 1935 in Newburgh, New York to a first-generation Italian-American mother and Italian immigrant father. Her family relocated to the South Bronx in 1944, after her father died of a heart attack. Ferraro’s mother felt strongly that women should have an education, so she continued her education at Marymount Manhattan College; she was the first woman in her family to receive a college degree. She became a teacher. Unsatisfied, she pursued a law degree, going to school at night. She graduated in 1960, one of two women in her class of 179.

She married John Zaccaro in 1960, moving to his native Forest Hills, Queens, New York. While she went by his name on a private basis, she kept her maiden name in the professional setting, an unusual thing for women of that era to do. She made use of her JD and worked in her husband’s real estate office as a civil lawyer, also doing pro bono work for women in family court. She became involved in local politics, and was elected president of Queens County Women’s Bar Association in 1970.

In 1974, she was appointed the Assistant District Attorney for Queens County, New York, an atypical job for women at the time. She began working in the Special Victims Bureau the next year, which, like on Law and Order: SVU, investigates cases of rape, domestic violence, child abuse, and the like. She became head of the department in 1977. While she did the same work as her male colleagues and was even praised for her dedication, she discovered that she was being paid less than the men in her office.

Ferraro was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1978. She became the Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus from 1981-1985, and joined the House Budget Committee in 1983. She greatly helped women while she served in Congress, cosponsoring the 1981 Economic Equity Act, advocating elderly women’s rights, and getting a pension bill benefiting people who pause working for several years (common among new mothers) passed into law. She was also pro-choice. Because she was so widely respected, she became the chairperson of the 1984 Democratic National Convention, the first woman to do so.

Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee in the 1984 presidential election, considered running with a female vice president; he put Ferraro and Dianne Feinstein on his shortlist. In the end, he asked Ferraro to run with him, who accepted with glee. She was the first woman to run on a major party platform. People felt that Ferraro was inexperienced and that it was patronizing towards women for Mondale to have chosen, sentiments similar to those regarding Sarah Palin. There was a huge mess regarding Ferraro’s personal financial information, one of the factors that led to their loss in the election.

She remained extremely active in politics after her vice presidential run. After unsuccessfully trying for a Senate seat on two occasions, she co-founded the National Organization of Italian American Women, and served on the boards of National Breast Cancer Research Fund, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the National Women’s Health Resource Center, in addition to many more accomplishments. Ferraro supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 election, but was glad to see Palin continuing her legacy.

Ferraro died just a few days ago of multiple myeloma, which she had suffered from for over a decade. She has truly helped women across America in their quest for equality. There has not yet been a woman in the White House as either a president or vice president; however, as Hillary Clinton put it in her concession speech, “Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.” We’re getting there. Eventually, that glass will shatter.

Yitgadal v'yitkadash shemai rabbah...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Jewish Feminism, Body Image, Food - Oh My!

NOW’s Love Your Body campaign is still going strong, so I figured I’d post something about Judaism, body image, and eating disorders.

Judaism and Food Judaism has an extremely close connection with food. Many Jews keep kosher, the set of extensive dietary laws established by the Torah and later expounded on by the rabbis in the Talmud. For example, Jews cannot eat pork or mix meat and poultry with milk. Jews also have to say blessings before and after eating, even before chewing gum, and ritually wash their hands before eating bread. There are also only certain brands that are considered kosher, usually marked by a little U within an O or a K within a shape like a triangle or tablet.

Most Jewish holidays are associated with some sort of food. Shabbat (Sabbath) begins on Friday nights and ends on Saturday nights; that means four big, celebratory meals every week. The most commonly-known examples of annual holiday foods are probably latkes with Hanukkah and matzah with Passover. Jewish comedian Alan King even joked that the summary of every Jewish holiday is “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!”

Judaism, Eating Disorder, and Body Image Gen. 1:26 explains that God made humankind “in Our image,” referring to God and the ministering angels. Rabbis have used this verse to show that we must take care of our physical bodies because they encase our souls, which are made in the image of God. “Only take guard of yourself and greatly guard your soul,” Deut. 4:9 says. This verse cautions people to take care of their bodies. Rabbis use this verse as the source of disapproval for anything that will harm the body, like drugs and smoking. It can also be applied to eating disorders: because it harms the body, Deut. 4:9 certainly frowns on of it.

Despite holy texts’ encouragement to take care of our bodies, eating disorders have become an increasing phenomenon in the Jewish community. “In general, the occurrences of eating disorders among observant Jews are usually lower,” Orthodox women’s issues author Gila Manolson said. However, due to the strong presence food has within Judaism, the prevalent pressure to obtain good marriages, and all of the external demands for women to be thin, the number of eating disorders within the Jewish community has gone up.

There are many things being done to remedy the situation, however. The Orthodox Union, the arbiter of all that is kosher (and the organization whose kosher symbol is a U within an O), made a documentary called “Hungry to Be Heard.” It explores the reasons behind the increasing statistics of eating disorders in the Jewish community and methods to prevent and treat them.

Many Jewish day schools have integrated eating disorder awareness into the curriculum. The Ramaz School in New York includes a unit on eating disorders in their high school health curriculum. The Hebrew Academy of Nassau County and Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway both have the “Full of Ourselves: An Empowerment Program for Girls” in their seventh and eighth grade curricula, a creative writing program that teaches self-awareness and healthy nutrition. Many ultra-Orthodox girls’ schools, like Bruriah High School for Girls, feature units on eating disorders and fostering healthy body images.

While the Jewish community has a long way to go regarding treatment and prevention of eating disorders and bolstering positive body images among teenage girls, there are definitely important steps being taken today.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Shining Stars of Davida: Vashti

This was cross-posted at the Ms. Magazine Blog (!!!!)

Today is Purim, one of the more obscure Jewish holidays. Celebrated around March, it commemorates the deliverance of the Jews from a genocidal plot, as recorded in the biblical Book of Esther (Megilla). The Megilla begins with a party thrown by the Persian king Ahasuerus, the public disobedience of his wife Vashti, and her subsequent banishment. Soon regretting his decision, he searched the kingdom for a new wife and chose Esther, a Jewish woman. Because the prime minister, Haman, was severely anti-Semitic, Esther’s uncle Mordecai advised her to conceal her Jewish identity from Ahasuerus. During Esther’s reign, Haman began plotting to wipe out the Jewish nation. Esther told Ahasuerus that she was a Jew and then informed him of Haman’s plot to destroy her people; Ahasuerus then killed Haman, sparing the Jews.

Purim was always a time of celebration and joyousness for me as a child. Even when I was younger and not a full-fledged feminist, I appreciated that Purim had a strong female protagonist, Esther. Once I discovered feminism, I, among many other Jewish feminists, adored the fact that such a righteous woman was the main character. However, it bothered me that the Megilla starts off with Vashti, the first antagonist of the Purim story. I’m far from the only one disturbed by this understanding, as Jewish feminists have reexamined Vashti and her role in the Purim story.

The Megilla itself discusses Vashti very neutrally. After describing Ahasuerus’ party at length, the text simply says that Vashti made a feast for the women of Persia, too. When Ahasuerus was drunk, he called for her to come “with the royal crown to show off [her beauty] to the people and to the officials” (Esther 1:11). She refused, motive unknown. Furious, he consulted his advisors, who suggested punishing her in order to discourage common women from rebelling against their husbands, too. Ahasuerus banished her.

Vashti is attacked by commentators on the Megilla. The Talmud explains that she was the great-granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar, a Babylonian king who conquered most of the known world and exiled the Jews from Israel for 70 years. (The Purim story takes places during that exile.) Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson, Belshazzar, was king while the Persians destroyed Babylon. When the Persians ransacked the castle, they found Belshazzar’s toddler daughter, Vashti. Cyrus, the king of Persia at the time, decided to marry her to his son Ahasuerus. Since the understated Persian monarchy needed credibility, Vashti, from the prestigious line of Nebuchadnezzar, certainly gave Ahasuerus pedigree.

Another commentary says that the party Vashti made was completely equal to Ahasuerus’, with the same kind of food and decorations. The Talmud says that it was adjacent to the men’s party, close enough for the male partygoers to hear the women’s voices. As a result, the drunken men began discussing the beauty of their countries’ women. Ahasuerus wanted to prove that his wife was the most attractive of them all, so he commanded Vashti to come to his party and dance, wearing only a crown. The Talmud explains that she refused to come, not because she had an objection to dancing in the nude, but because she developed a skin ailment.

These commentaries were mostly written by men circa 400 CE, a time period not known for its feminist inclinations. It is therefore understandable that the content of their commentaries isn’t terribly pro-woman. However, as Jewish feminists Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut have stated, “It is not enough to hold by previous commentators, learned as they are, but to bring our era’s sensibilities, which includes feminist knowledge, to bear on the text.”

My bearing on the text is that Vashti is a woman we must emulate. While her lineage has been traditionally held against her, I find this unfair. The Bible is filled with positive characters that come from bad families; Abraham’s father Terah was considered evil, but commentators never put Abraham down because of his ancestry. Why revile Vashti?

Vashti understood feminism thousands of years before it was given a name. Realizing the sexism of the fact that Ahasuerus made a party for only the men of Persia, she decided to level the playing field and make an equal party for the women.

Vashti was an extremely proud, headstrong woman; there was no way that she would debase herself by dancing for Ahasuerus’ drunken friends. She didn’t refuse because she suddenly developed a skin ailment, but because she was a self-respecting woman. The Talmud is right in the sense that Vashti did not want to jump when Ahasuerus snapped. Why would she knuckle under to his commands? Unfortunately, like many husbands today, Ahasuerus couldn’t deal with the thought of a wife stronger than him, banishing Vashti and passing a law enforcing women’s subservience.

There are still many Vashtis today, women who are punished because they say no, women who are stuck in abusive relationships. It is imperative that we learn from the Megilla and work to change the culture we live in today. Bash rape myths when you hear them. Support friends who are survivors of rape and domestic violence. Patronize charities and organizations that help women escape situations of domestic abuse and get through the aftermath of a rape. Ensure that women have courage to say no like Vashti did, but make certain that they will not suffer her end.

There is a Jewish teaching that your name reveals the essence of your soul. In Persian, the name Vashti means goodness. A commentary explains that Vashti comes from the Hebrew word shtei, meaning two. While the commentary uses this to explain Vashti’s “twoness” in a negative light, it can also be seen positively. Esther is considered the only hero of the Purim story; Vashti can be counted as the second.

I dub Vashti into the Shining Stars of Davida - strong women and men who make feminists proud.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Help Agunah on Ta'anit Esther

Today is Ta’anit Esther (Fast of Esther) that precedes Purim every year. Purim is one of the more obscure Jewish holidays. Celebrated around March, it commemorates the deliverance of the Jews from a genocidal plot, as recorded in the biblical Book of Esther (Megilla). The Megilla begins with a party thrown by the Persian king Ahasuerus, the public disobedience of his wife Vashti, and her subsequent banishment. Soon regretting his decision, he searched the kingdom for a new wife and chose Esther, a Jewish woman. Because the prime minister, Haman, was severely anti-Semitic, Esther’s uncle Mordecai advised her to conceal her Jewish identity from Ahasuerus. During Esther’s reign, Haman began plotting to wipe out the Jewish nation. Esther told Ahasuerus that she was a Jew and then informed him of Haman’s plot to destroy her people; Ahasuerus then killed Haman, sparing the Jews.

When Mordecai told Esther about Haman’s plot, he asked her to go Ahasuerus “to implore of him, and to plead with him for her people” (Esther 4:8). Esther, however, was reluctant to go to the king without an express invite; “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court, who is not summoned, the law is one - to be put to death; except for the one to whom the king shall extend the gold scepter” (Esther 4:11). After Mordecai asked her again, she agreed, but requested that Mordecai gather the Jews for three days of prayer and fasting. We commemorate Esther’s three days of fasting with Ta’anit Esther.

The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) has made Ta’anit Esther the International Agunah Advocacy Day. Agunot are women whose husbands refuse to give them a get (religious divorce papers). Since in Jewish law, the husband must give his wife the get, women whose husbands refuse to do so are stuck in unwanted marriages. This situation is clearly a horrible one; at the 2010 JOFA conference, Blu Greenberg mentioned at her session about agunah that agunot she has met act similarly to victims of domestic abuse.

“Like Esther, the agunot of the present era do not want to be in the marriage in which they find themselves. Like Esther, many women who are refused a get live in fear of their spouses and live a double life. Like Esther, the agunah, a victim of get-refusal, finds herself lacking control of her own freedom,” a recent JOFA email said. When Ahasuerus searched the kingdom for a wife after he banished Vashti, people were reluctant to hand their daughters over, since they knew that they would spend a night with the king and the rest of their lives in his harem. Jewish women like Esther were particularly afraid, since Ahasuerus was no friend of the Jews; when Haman proposed his idea to wipe them out, Ahasuerus gave his blessing. As a result, Esther was not happy when she was chosen to be his new wife.

Sefer HaToda’ah, a commentary, explains what Esther said as she prayed for the three days before she approached Ahasuerus. (It’s my own translation from Hebrew, so I apologize in advance for mistakes.) “God, the god of Israel, who ruled before the creation of the world, please help Your maidservant [Esther], an orphan without father and mother, equivalent to a poor woman who asks for money from house to house. I ask Your mercy from window to window in the house of Ahasuerus. And now, God, please save Your maidservant the poor woman, and save Your sheep [the Jews] from the enemies that arise against us. You have no inhibition to save in large or in small amounts. You are the Parent of orphans; please stand to the right of this orphan that trusts in Your goodness, and give me mercy before this man [Ahasuerus], because I dread him…”

I think Esther’s prayer would resonate with many agunot today. It is a miscarriage of justice that the situation is still a prevalent issue, and we have to end it. This Ta'anit Esther, say the prayer for agunot. Listen to Blu Greenberg’s 2010 JOFA conference session about agunah and the possible solutions. Help out your sisters in need. Queen Esther would be proud.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Most People are Feminists, I Think

I would say that the vast majority of women, and men, out there are feminists. Seriously, what are the basic tenets of feminism? NOW’s top six issues are abortion rights, promoting diversity, violence against women, lesbian rights, constitutional equality (aka the ERA), and economic justice. While I love NOW and wish Betty Friedan were my grandmother, I know that if I had been alive in the 1960s, I would’ve been a Shulamith Firestone follower. So honestly, I think NOW’s gotta get its priorities straight. Are all of the issues that NOW champions extremely important? Yes. Of course. I don’t want to take away from them. But if we had to narrow feminism down into only two basic categories, I would say they would be equal pay for equal work and to end violence against women.

Equal pay for equal work Unless someone is a complete and total never-bending reactionary, I think everyone nowadays believes that two people who do the same work deserve the same amount of money, regardless of ovaries. I was actually having this discussion with a girl in my school who is actually a complete and total never-bending reactionary, and even she agreed that equal pay should be given for equal work.

“Mr. A and Ms. B,” I said, naming two teachers at school. “They teach the same course, yield the same achievement from students, do the exact same job the exact same way. Why should Mr. A be paid more, simply because he’s male?”

“Well, yeah, but teaching doesn’t count,” she said. (What? Is teaching the only job that women can do? I never understood this one.)

“Fine then, Dr. M and Dr. F. Dr. M is male, Dr. F is female. They see the same patients and give the same antibiotics and do their jobs THE EXACT SAME WAY. Should Dr. F be paid less because she’s a woman?”

“I guess not,” she reluctantly agreed.

Women cannot get anywhere unless they are being paid the same as their male colleagues. If we’re always at a financial disadvantage to the men around us, how can we fight for our rights?

Violence against women Again, unless someone is a complete and total never-bending reactionary, I doubt they believe that women deserve to be abused. Even if they are totally reactionary, I really can’t imagine there’s any human being out there that believes that people should be abused because of their chromosome makeup. (Maybe I’m being naïve here, I don’t know.) Violence covers a lot: all the forms of rape and sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic abuse, etc. It’s impossible to completely end violence in general, let alone against women, but there are ways to prevent it.

My mother and I actually had this discussion a little while ago. “It’s hard to stop men from being abusive,” she said about domestic violence. “We have to teach girls and women to refuse to deal with it.” Girls should be educated that no matter what behavior they might see at home, their mothers shouldn’t have to deal with it, and neither should they. Boys should also be taught that no matter how their fathers treat their mothers, they should always treat women with respect.

If women are physically abused by men, there is no way that they can hope to become equal to them. Physical and sexual violence cannot be tolerated as something that happens, a fact of life that cannot be helped. I doubt anyone would say that a woman or man deserves to be abused in any form, whether rape or domestic violence.

Going on the premise that the two basic tenets of feminism are equal pay for equal work and ending violence against women, I really think that the vast majority of people out there are truly feminists. (I’m talking secular feminism here. Judaic feminism is an entirely different area.) People don’t want to admit it, of course; I really don’t know why the feminist movement has been so reviled in recent years, but it has been. Whatever the case, in their heart of hearts, I truly believe that most people agree with feminism.

The next step? Getting people to work for it.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Rosh Hodesh Adar II

It was Rosh Hodesh Adar II on Monday. Rosh Hodesh is the holiday dedicated to celebrating the arrival of the new month, considered a special holiday for women because it was given to them as a special gift after they refused to participate in the sin of the Golden Calf. (Women of the Wall prays at the Kotel HaMa'aravi (Western Wall) on Rosh Hodesh). Every few years, a month is doubled (a leap year) in order to keep holidays at the correct time of year (e.g. Passover in the spring). The doubled month is always Adar, because Adar is the happiest month; the holiday of Purim, celebrating the success of the Jews over those who wanted to kill them, occurs in Adar.

The word Adar has many different meanings. One explanation of the word is cloak. This is a reference to God’s compassion for the Jews. The purpose of a garment is to provide us with warmth; in Adar, when Purim occurs, we experience the warmth of God. A garment also conceals the body of the person who wears it. A theme of Purim is seter (hidden miracles); the miracles were “dressed” in a series of natural events.

The word Adar can also mean strength. Adar is the month of good fortune for the Jewish people; the Jews managed to survive, despite Haman’s evil intentions to destroy the Jewish nation. Because it is such a joyous month, we have two of it during a leap year.

According to the Sefer Yetzirah, a commentary, every month has a corresponding letter, mazel (fortune, sort of like an astrological sign), shevet (tribe), and color.

Adar’s corresponding letter is kuf, the equivalent of a k in English. Kuf is also a word that means monkey. Monkeys’ antics are known to make us laugh, a sign of happiness. Laughter symbolizes Adar, a month of joy because of the Jews’ survival during the Purim story.

The mazel of Adar is the fish. One reason given for the fish is that Moses was born and died on 7 Adar. He was cast into the water, where fish live, and was “fished” out by Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh. Another reason is because the Jews are likened to fish that swim in the waters of Torah; Jews who leave the Torah will eventually wither away and die spiritually. The water also protects fish as the Torah protects Jews from harm.

The shevet corresponding to Adar is shevet Naftali. In Kabbalah, the name Naftali is read as two words that mean “sweetness is to me,” nafat li. The mitzvah (commandment) on Purim to reach the level of drunkenness, which the Gemara calls sweetness, that a person is unable to differentiate between "cursed is Haman" and "blessed is Mordechai." (Mordechai was Queen Esther's righteous uncle.)

Jacob blessed Naftali, “Naftali is a deer let loose who delivers beautiful sayings.” Such beautiful sayings give rise to joy and laughter to all who hear.

The three letters that compose the name Haman can be permuted in six ways. The Gematria (numerical value) of Haman is 95, so the total value of all six permutations is 6 ∙ 95, which is 570, also the Gematria for the word rasha, evildoer. 570 is also the Gematria of Naftali, who takes joy and laughs in playing the six permutation game of Haman. In Kabbalah, it is explained that the beautiful sayings of Naftali reflect his wisdom to permute words in general, as well as to examine Gematrias.

The color of Adar is green. Esther, the hero of the Purim story, is also represented by the color green. Green is the middle color of the spectrum. Esther was considered the center because her spirituality was deep enough that she could relate to everyone. Esther was able to identify all the midot that a person possessed because, like green, she could find something of herself in everyone.

As we have established, Adar is an extremely joyous month. The Gemara in Ta'anit 29b tells us that just as we decrease happiness when the month of Av begins because the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) was destroyed then, we increase happiness when Adar begins. The Gemara even goes on to say that the good fortune of Adar is so strong that if a person has a court case, he or she should try to conduct it in Adar.

My family has personally had a lot of simcha during Adar. My grandmother and grandfather, of blessed memories, were Holocaust survivors. After they were liberated, they both went back to their hometown and found each other. Homeless, they were sent to a Displaced Persons camp. Despite their horrific memories, my grandmother and grandfather dreamed of the new life they could make together. The two came to New York a week after Purim on March 22, 1949, or chaf-aleph Adar 5709.

A theme of the Purim story is v’nahafokhu, getting turned upside down. Everything turned around on Haman: he was hanged on the gallows he built to hang Mordechai, and his decree to destroy the Jews was rewritten. Haman is said to be Hitler’s ancestor. It seemed that Hitler would complete Haman’s final solution, with hundreds of concentration camps darkening the air with smoke. Suddenly, German forces began losing, and the Soviets liberated the concentration camps. The mighty Third Reich ended. Hitler committed suicide by ingesting poison and shooting himself; this mirrored the gas chambers and mass shootings that took millions of Jewish lives. His body was then partially cremated, another echo of his disposal of the Jews.

My grandfather’s name is Naftali, the shevet of Purim. My mother’s name is Pessi, which is the Yiddish form of Batya, who fished Moses out of the water, making the mazel of Adar fish. My grandmother was Feige, the Yiddish form of Zipporah, who the Midrash explains was Batya’s biological sister.

As we already said, the word adar means strong. My grandparents were truly strong; they came to America with nothing and built up their lives. This was a personal v’nahafokhu; they managed to turn their lives from survivors with numbers on their arms to an observant all-American family. They managed to rise above the trials that had tested them and remained Orthodox Jews, perpetuating the Jewish nation. Their first grandchild, whose name is Mordechai, was born on Ta'anit Esther (Fast of Esther), March 22, the same day they came to America. My grandmother always felt that having children and preserving their Judaism was the sweetest revenge she could give Hitler, showing him that his mission failed: Jewish children are being born. The Jews live.


Monday, March 7, 2011

Women in Prayer: Part 21, Women's Tefillah Groups

They’re all men.

Numb, hurt, outraged, it was all I could think of at my bobbe’s (grandmother's) unveiling. The people who have an active part in the ceremony - they’re all men. I’m far from the only one who noticed this gender gap; Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a co-founder of Ms. Magazine, cites her gender-based exclusion in her mother’s Kaddish as the impetus that made her leave observant Judaism. However, it wasn’t until my bobbe’s unveiling that I was able to comprehend the degree of pain strong enough to rip women like Ms. Cottin Pogrebin away from Judaism.

The male-dominated ceremony really made me furious. At unveilings, tehillim (psalms) corresponding to the deceased’s name are recited in order to help his or her nishama (soul) elevate in Heaven. At my bobbe’s unveiling, only men were allowed to recite tehillim. Just one of the ten tehillim was recited by a blood relative, and I only knew three of the men at all; I’m sure many, if not most, had never even known my bobbe. They got to recite tehillim to elevate her nishama, but I, her granddaughter, didn’t. Her own daughters weren’t even allowed to get too close to the grave. Instead, men my bobbe didn’t even know said tehillim for her, given the honor simply because they were born without ovaries.

When it came time to respond to Kaddish, the prayer said in memory of the deceased, I croaked an amen loudly and my mother shushed me, but no. I would not be quiet. I would say amen to my bobbe’s Kaddish if it killed me or embarrassed me or both, even if it was recited by someone not her blood, by a son-in-law she never even liked, a man.

While it truly saddens and frustrates me that my bobbe was given such a male-dominated unveiling, I am given hope by the proliferation of efforts in regard to women’s equality in prayer. Women’s tefillah (prayer) groups, which consist exclusively of women coming together to pray, are growing stronger every day. Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan has hosted a women’s tefillah group since 1972, widely considered the first to do so. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, congregations across the globe created women’s tefillah groups. As of 2000, according to the Women’s Tefillah Network, ninety groups exist throughout the world, ranging from New York to Sydney, Australia.

Shira Salamone, the prominent Jewish feminist blogger, stated, “I think that we women need an opportunity to be the leaders of public ritual, and…women’s tefillah groups give us that opportunity without violating halachic (Jewish law) rules concerning who is permitted to lead prayers for which a minyan (prayer quorum of ten men) is required.”

Shearith Israel (also known as the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue) has given women the opportunity to lead public ritual since 1990. “Our first reading [was] of Megillat Esther (the Book of Esther) by and for women. We subsequently added Shabbat Shaharit (Sabbath morning prayers), Minha (afternoon prayers), and Arbit (evening prayers, Sunday mornings services, and Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) and Ruth, read by young women and girls of the congregation,” Lynn Kaye, the assistant congregational leader, said. “We skip devarim sheh’b’kedusha [that must be said with a minyan of ten men], so no Kaddish Barehu (the introduction to Shema) or Kedusha (part of Shemoneh Esrei).”

Since 1979, The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (aka the Bayit) has had a monthly women’s tefillah group. “I do think women’s tefillah groups are a wonderful venue for women to have a voice in prayer and ritual. In addition, it is a warm and wonderful space for bat mitzvah girls to celebrate their milestones,” Rabba Sara Hurwitz said.

Rabbi Steven Exler, who works closely with Rabba Hurwitz, stated, “Our general approach in the Bayit is to try to make various options open to our community members…for their prayer and life cycle experiences. As feminism goes through different iterations, we are conscious of different kinds of spaces which make room for women’s voices and leadership in synagogue and tefillah ritual. One approach is within a mixed gender setting, and one approach is to create a women’s space. We try to make room for both in our Bayit, and women’s tefillah is part of our commitment to that.”

As Rabbi Exler mentioned, partnership minyanim are also an important part of women’s inclusion in tefillah. While women’s tefillah groups are women-only, partnership minyanim have at least ten men in attendance, the genders are usually separated by some form of mehitzah (divider), and women are only allowed to lead in certain parts, but can read from the Torah. In Shira Hadasha, a Jerusalem-based congregation, women participate in the tefillah services by leading Kabbalat Shabbat and Pesukei D’Zimrah (parts of prayer), in addition to reading from the Torah and reciting the ever-important Kaddish.

“I support Partnership Minyanim in addition to women’s tefillah groups because they enable women to participate in a minyan with [devarim] sheh’b’kedushah while still having a literal voice in the service,” Shira Salamone said.

Avraham Leader, one of the creators of the Israel-based Amika de-Bira partnership minyan, said, “My original motivation in starting this minyan actually had more to do with wanting a place where I could pray…without…[feeling] very estranged. My wife at the time asked me why women couldn’t have aliyot (calls to read the Torah)…I looked the matter up in halacha (Jewish law) and to my surprise discovered that…not only can women have aliyot, but they may also read from the Torah, and over time, they eventually took additional roles [in Amika de-Bira]. So this decision came about almost organically…I would, however, emphasize that our focus remains on prayer from the heart, regardless of whether it is led by women or men. We maintain separation between men and women...As you may know, the halachic framework we created was later used in one form or another in other modern Orthodox congregations both in Israel and abroad.”

Julie Zuckerman, a co-creator of the Kehillat Darchei Noam in Modi’in, Israel, said, “We define ourselves as ‘Orthodox halachic egalitarian,’ and when the minyan was started about 5 ½ years ago [we] felt very strongly that we should be doing everything possible to expand women’s participation in the ritual aspects of tefillah. Women can lead Kabbalat Shabbat, Pesukei D’Zimrah, read Torah and haftarah (part of prayer), have aliyot, lead the Torah service, etc. The mehitzah is down the middle and is a curtain, which is parted...during the Torah reading, for announcements...etc. The rationale…is that if, in the rest of our lives, women are taking an active, equal role in society – work, family, etc. – then there is no reason women should not be taking a similarly active role in the synagogue.”

Despite these amazing congregations, much of Orthodoxy still disapproves of the concept of women’s tefillah. Members of Women of the Wall, a group that prays loudly at the Kotel HaMa’aravi (Western Wall) every Rosh Hodesh (first of the Jewish month) with tefillin (phylacteries) and Torah scrolls, can attest to the monthly battles with the Israeli government and Western Wall-goers: two women have been arrested since WOW’s 1988 conception, and innumerable women have been heckled and attacked. Despite the difficulty, these women are strong and are willing to stand up for what they believe in.

At my bobbe’s unveiling, I vowed to myself that I would never let men wrest away the power that my tefillot can hold, that I would emulate all of the pioneers within the women’s tefillah movement. I also swore that I would never let a repeat of her unveiling happen to my mother. My mother deserves a Kaddish said by her own daughter, a Kaddish responded to by women, a proper Kaddish for a woman of the Line.

No matter what I have to do to make it happen, my mother will get it.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Star of Davida Interviews Gila Manolson

Many Jewish feminists have grappled with the concept of tzniut, the set of laws regarding modesty in dress stating that women must cover their collarbones, elbows, and knees at all times. Star of Davida had the honor of interviewing Gila Manolson. Ms. Manolson is an international author and speaker regarding Judaism and relationships, in addition to tzniut.While I do not agree with everything she has to say, I think many of her points are excellent, and she busts several tzniut myths. (Look forward to a post about tzniut sometime soon.)

Talia bat Pessi: You say tzniut is not a dress code, but a consciousness that manifests itself in dress and speech, etc. What exactly do you mean by that?
Gila Manolson: A dress code implies that you have to wear something because your principal or boss tells you that you have to - the clothing doesn’t represent who you are, you’re just complying with the rules. As a result, any dress code can be a farce. Even if you wear the tzniut “dress code” and cover your collarbone and your elbows and your knees, you can easily be undoing what tzniut is all about. Accordingly, tzniut is a consciousness. By dressing with tzniut you are defining yourself internally, peeling off the superficiality and identifying by your core. You want your dress and behavior to reflect that consciousness of self-awareness, awareness of who you are.

Talk to me about the reasons for tzniut.
Ever since the hait (sin) in Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden), we’ve lost the ability to see people for who they are. Adam and Eve saw the body and the soul as one unit, so it wasn’t possible for them to objectify one another. Once they lost vision of the whole person, superficiality entered the picture and shunted the soul into background, making the body so glaring that we can’t get past it. That’s the way we see one another now. Tzniut tries to fix the imbalance by highlighting the soul and downplaying the body so there’s a fighting chance we can see the soul. We won’t return to Gan Eden until the redemption comes, but in meantime, we at least can give people a fighting chance to see each other for who they are.

I have always heard that women have to keep tzniut so that men aren’t turned on by them - i.e., women have to help protect men from sin. Is this true?
Yes and no. When a man sees an immodestly-dressed woman, the first look is a knee-jerk reaction and he can’t control it. You can hold the woman responsible for that first look, but after that, the man is responsible. Anyone who has the power to influence someone for good or bad has to use that power appropriately: women are very sexual, therefore we have to be careful how we use our sexuality. However, men are responsible for whether or not they continue to look. I go to an all-women’s gym, and they have televisions there playing all kinds of schmutz. It’s a challenge not to watch them, since they’re there. After experiencing this constant feeling of not being able to look, I realized that men have to avert their eyes from so many things on the street every day, not just when they go to the gym and have to avoid the TVs.

There is a group of women in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel, that wear burqas in order to keep tzniut effectively. Do you support this in any way?
Most of Orthodoxy is against them since it’s a chillul Hashem (desecration of God), nobody believes in this except for their small community. We completely disassociate with that group because the burqa is the condition of a different religion. By covering a woman’s face you deny her personhood, while in Judaism a woman is meant to have a dignified internal presence, not to be invisible.

Tzniut is often defined as blending in, not standing out. Is this a misconception?
I have a problem with that concept. People think that tzniut means not standing out because usually when someone stands out, she’s standing out for something external, not internal, but if she can stand out for inner dignity and inner beauty, I don’t think that’s a contradiction to tzniut. I know rebbetzins (rabbis’ wives) who exude beauty because of who they are inside, and so they definitely do stand out in a quiet, dignified way, not in a loud, attention-getting way, which is a far more compelling kind of beauty. I don’t believe tzniut is about blending into wallpaper, no. You have to radiate internality.

Why do you think so much responsibility regarding tzniut has been given to women?
On the one hand, men in my community dress as modestly as the women do, but if a man is jogging, for example, he will dress less modestly, which would be considered inappropriate for a woman, so it is emphasized more for women than men. I think it’s because men and women are different. I feel like feminism doesn’t deal with reality in that men’s brains are more hardwired to visual stimulation than women’s. As a result, women are more susceptible to get attention from men, so they degrade and superficialize themselves to get male validation, which destroys a woman’s self-worth and makes her an object. It’s incumbent for women to protect themselves because it’s reality.

Protection against what?
Protection against self-diminishment, me seeing myself as less than who I am. There is an element of helping men in tzniut too, because in Judaism there is the concept of kol Yisrael araivim zeh lazeh, every person in the Jewish community is responsible for each other. If your friend is trying to stop smoking, you wouldn’t dangle a pack of cigarettes in front of her, so you shouldn’t dangle your body in front of a man. Tzniut isn’t really to protect men, though, since tzniut is also applicable among a group of only women. You have to keep tzniut in the privacy of your own home too. Tzniut is designed to help us foster a deeper self-image. While it benefits men, I believe its essence is for women.

You place a lot of stress on the fact that if a girl wants others to view her as a person, she needs to dress modestly/according to tzniut, so that people don’t view her as a body. Why do you emphasize this point so much?
We live in such a sexualized society that women’s self-esteem is going to pot. Boundaries have completely crumbled, women’s magazines are so sexualized and encourage girls to have sex just to please the men in their lives, there’s no self-respect or concept that a woman’s body belongs to her exclusively. All of the problems in male-female relationships are related to the destruction of tzniut in society, because once we bring down boundaries in dress and the body is exposed, everything goes up in smoke. Boundaries are what foster the sense of personhood by defining where I leave off and you begin, and by defining what belongs to who. Once boundaries are gone, personhood can be up for grabs.

We had a class discussion about tzniut a while ago, and one of my friends said that she dresses according to tzniut because “clothes are my identity.” Do you agree with this stance?
I don’t think clothes should be your identity - it’s typical of teenage girls to think that, but most grow out of it. Some don’t. Clothes are an expression of identity, however, and we wear things that tell the world what we are. Clothing is a self-statement - it sends a message. The thing is that the world picks up on that message and feeds it back to us, which cycles it into our own self-image. If your clothing is attention-getting, even if it’s just out there rather than immodest, and everyone relates to you negatively as a weirdo or positively as a free spirit, that can then have such an impression on you and you’ll begin to see yourself as you believe others see you. This is called symbolic interactionism, the concept of “I come to see myself as I believe others see me.” If you want to build up a solid identity, you have to be aware of the fact that you’re sending a statement by your dress and that will cycle back into your own self-image. Your dress strengthens your identity for the good or the bad. On the good side, if a woman dresses in a dignified way and people relate to her as a person, not as an object, she’ll come to see herself more as a person.

Why do you feel tzniut is important to keep?
I think the emphasis on tzniut nowadays is a little overboard. Even a rebbetzin I know has said that people act like it’s the only mitzvah (commandment) for women, and it's not. It’s a little silly that people blame all of the Jewish community’s ills on a lack of tzniut - it can also be because of a lack of ahavat Yisrael (love of your fellow Jew), ahdut (togetherness), etc. On the other hand, society has become so body-obsessed that we have to counter that, so we need to talk more about the sexualization of women’s bodies because it’s just much more of a presence nowadays. I don’t think the correct approach is to measure girls’ skirts, however, because what’s happening ironically is that we’re externalizing tzniut, which is a mitzvah meant to develop internality. Inches may be important in halakha (Jewish law), but focusing on it alone is missing the essence of tzniut. That’s why girls wear skintight and provocative things - because they never got the deeper message behind tzniut.

Why are you so involved in tzniut rather than another aspect of Judaism?
It really hit me when I became observant. I started looking at Judaism and saw the different approach the community has to relationships and self. We’re not the only ones who recognize this - non-Jewish and non-religious authors say the same things as I do, even though they’ve never heard of tzniut before. Gloria Steinem has said that a woman’s light should shine from within, not without, and feminists have boycotted Miss America contests and other things that objectify women. Tzniut is not a uniquely Jewish message, it’s key to the health of society. The presence or lack or tzniut will determine the quality of a relationship. If you have a deep self-image, you’ll expect to be related to on that level, and will look for depth in another, so it’s very fundamental. That’s why I was so drawn to it, also especially because of the contrast of the non-religious world that I came from and the deeply spiritual world I am in now. I always saw it as very strong feminist statement that I want to be taken seriously as a person and be respected for who I am, not ogled for what I have. I never felt more liberated than when I snorkeled fully-clothed and accidentally emerged at a nudist beach - I felt that I was repossessing my own body. I don’t feel that I have to display my body, or that I have to worry if my tan is good or not compared to someone else’s.

I recently read an article in the Washington Post about how an ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn has a 1 in 19 occurrence of eating disorders, when the American average is 1 in 50. Why do you think the numbers are so much worse in that community?
Estimates of eating disorders vary, I’ve heard estimates between 8% and 15% for the general population. In general, the occurrences of eating disorders among observant Jews are usually lower, however the neighborhood they investigated was higher. I believe it’s because in addition to living in New York, which has a particular emphasis on the body, that specific ethnic group happens to place an undue emphasis on appearance. I don’t want to say which community it is, but that culture really condones young women acting as bodies that marry wealthy older men. That’s part of the culture, not the Jewish culture, but the culture that they lived within for many centuries and they assimilated ideas from. It’s a very sad reality, but this comes from a combination of the ethnic background and New York’s influence. My friend actually moved from New York to Ohio and her first reaction was that everyone who lives there is plump, but then she realized that the girls in Ohio were normal - it was the girls in New York that were too thin.

Do you think that tzniut usually affords a positive body image?
I have a problem with the term body image, because the focus is off. You have to have a positive soul image and see your body as part of who you are, and then you’ll be able to appreciate your body because it’s a part of you. It’s really a person image, not a body image. Once you separate the body from the soul then it can be scrutinized and compared to others’, because it’s just a shell, but if it’s attached to who you are as a person, then it can’t be compared as easily. Crows’ feet are considered unattractive, but if you see crows’ feet on someone who always smiles then you view them as attractive because they’re part of a warm, smiley woman. A woman who’s comfortable with her self and personhood won’t be bothered if she gains a couple extra pounds.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Shining Stars of Davida: Natalie Tennant and Betty Ireland

West Virginia has an extremely interesting gubernatorial election this year, as two of the front-runners in the primaries are women: Natalie Tennant and Betty Ireland.

Natalie Tennant, a 43-year-old native West Virginian, is no stranger to making gender-based precedents. In 1990, she became the first woman to be the West Virginia University mascot. University officials were originally leery of the concept, even telling her to go back to the kitchen, but she showed them that men and women can wear a mountaineer costume the same way. (I’m sorry, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard women stopped from doing. What, having testosterone somehow makes a person better at getting school spirit at sports games?)

After college, she went into news journalism, anchoring local news stations. She actually met her husband, Erik Wells, also currently a politician, while co-anchoring a morning show. (I think that’s really cute, so I just had to mention it. Sorry. Back to important stuff.)

Tennant became the secretary of state of West Virginia in 2008, the first Democratic woman to do so. As secretary of state, she modernized the system, made the voting process easier for those in America and for military personnel overseas, and increased government accessibility through social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, and live YouTube streams. As a working parent and small business owner, she has made West Virginian business and economy flourish.

She has to get past the Democratic primary before she can actually run for governor, however. She’s up against five men, including the incumbent governor Earl Ray Tomblin. (Tomblin took over for Joe Manchin, who became United States Senator when Robert Byrd died.) Public Policy Polling determined that Tomblin and Tennant have almost equal support, with 25% backing Tomblin and 24% backing Tennant.

Among the Republicans, there is also a woman running: Betty Ireland. Originally a West Virginia public school teacher, she went into business. Successful in the business world, she eventually owned Retirement Systems and Services, a pension administration and consulting firm in West Virginia, for six years. For the next six, she served as vice president and head of the pension division in the Trust Department of the Charleston National Bank of Commerce.

She became the first woman, Democratic or Republican, secretary of state in West Virginia in 2005, holding the position until 2009 (when Tennant took over). When she ran in 2004, she beat Democrat Ken Hechler, a popular politician who had previously held the secretary of state position for 16 years. (Tennant had lost the primary to him by approximately 1,000 votes.) As the first woman secretary of state, she was also the first woman to enter the executive branch of West Virginia government.

It looks like Ireland will probably win the Republican primary, as Public Policy Polling says she has 46% of the people’s support, compared to her closest opponent’s 11%. (31% are undecided, however.) It’ll be interesting if both Ireland and Tennant win their primaries, since there has never been a female governor of West Virginia before, let alone two female candidates running. Public Policy Polling says that with Tennant and Ireland against each other, 43% support Tennant and 32% support Ireland. That does leave 26% of the West Virginia public undecided, however.

I look forward to see how both Natalie Tennant and Betty Ireland do in the primaries and actual gubernatorial election. Either way it’ll make for an interesting race to watch.